We asked Andy Walker, a geneticist, professor, and Louis P. Martini–endowed chair in viticulture in the Department of Viticulture and Enology in the School of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis, about the future of California’s wine.
Boom: What is the legacy of the California Mission grape and its role in our state’s wine legacy?
Andy Walker: The Mission grape variety was brought into California in the mid-1760s by Spanish missionaries as they explored California and established the missions. We thought for many years that this grape originated from a collection of seeds from an unknown variety in Spain that Spaniards brought to the New World in the 1560s. Recent DNA-based testing has found that Mission is the same as Listan Prieto, a grape from the Canary Islands—the last stop to load food and water on the way to the edge of the earth or the Americas, whichever came first. They also brought Muscat of Alexandria. Interestingly, the Torrontes grape of Argentina and several obscure relatives turn out to be hybrids of Listan Prieto (Mission) and Muscat of Alexandria, and may have been crossed and created here in the New World. Mission was widely grown until the Gold Rush era when Europeans brought better quality wine grapes to meet the expanding wine demand in the state. It is a very vigorous variety with very high yields and well suited to dry arid conditions with limited rainfall, but it has poor color and is often astringent.
Boom: How are California grape growers and vinters investing in sustainable practices?
Walker: Sustainability has become a key concern for the California wine industry and has focused on soil, water, energy, and labor. Water will be one of the biggest challenges to viticulture in our dry and overpopulated state. Growers are rethinking their irrigation and rootstock choices and considering a time in the near future in which water will be much more limited—perhaps due to the environment but certainly due to political, social, and environmental pressures.
Boom: How is the millennial generation of Americans—those in their twenties and thirties—driving new trends in wine consumption?
Walker: The most dramatic example is the sudden explosion of interest in Muscat wines (apparently the result of a few rap songs)—the acreage of these varieties has dramatically expanded in the last few years.
Boom: What are the possibilities on the horizon for out-of-the-box technological or genomic innovations that will challenge our perceptions of the limits of terroir, climate, and grape varietals?
Walker: One of the limitations in wine research has been the inability of machines to equal the human nose. We are now approaching that ability—and at the same time are in the midst of a genetic revolution due to the dramatic reductions in the cost of and improvements in approaches to genome sequencing. The next step will be to use these tools to understand the role of terroir in quality, or manipulate ripening profiles to combat climate change. I hope we see a movement toward using wine varieties that are better suited for warm climates and a greater willingness to use new varieties bred to be resistant to pest and diseases. Both of these fit the sustainability bill.
Boom: How do you see climate change affecting the California wine industry?
Walker: A changing climate will likely impact the varieties we choose to grow in a given region. It will also change the way we trellis and cultivate vines. I think we have the ability to produce excellent wines in a warmer climate.
Boom: What wines will we be drinking in 2050?
Walker: I think we will be using varieties with mildew resistance. Classical breeding is poised to take advantage of genetic markers for disease resistance and solve many grape disease problems. Foremost among these in California is powdery mildew for which growers apply fungicides prophylactically eight to twelve times (or more) per season. I also hope we are using some of the outstanding Sicilian and Spanish varieties that are well suited for California’s warm and dry climate.
Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?
Walker: The California Grape Acreage Report for 2012, an iPad mini, and as many of the endangered wild grape species as we could fit! These species are threatened across the United States by urbanization, agriculture, wanton disregard, and herbicide use by highway crews.
We asked Alessandro Duranti, author and distinguished professor of anthropology and dean of social sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, how universities will intersect with society in 2050.
Boom: Do you think that many of the disciplines that we inherited from the nineteenth century will still be around, and will they look the same in the future?
Alessandro Duranti: When I started doing this work as a dean, my first idea was: Why don’t we just forget the departments? Why don’t we just think: Who do you want to play with? Who do you want to be with? That should be where you go. And then let’s see what happens in the twenty-first century. But that’s a really hard thing to do. And I didn’t want to be Gorbachev. I didn’t want to destroy the whole thing before we figure out where to go. So my solution has been to say, well, OK, let’s create a parallel universe inside the university that is much more flexible. Let’s play with that and let’s leave the old structure the way it is. That’s the idea behind our innovation lab—to take examples of collaboration and innovation that work and say: Let’s do that. That will be our play place. And let’s find money to do that. And donors are very excited about that. They like this idea of interdisciplinary collaborations.
Boom: Innovation is not a new mantra in some parts of the university, but in others it really is. How do you see bringing the spirit and practices of innovation into disciplines that have been analytical and contemplative?
Duranti: All the young people who have made millions of dollars—and come to give talks to the students who participate in our Startup UCLA— tell these stories about failure. It’s a mantra. You’ve got to fail before you learn how to do the thing you’re trying to do. We don’t have this model. We have the idea that you do the thing, and it should be good, and then you stay there forever and ever. The community that’s interesting to me is one that is much more flexible, that reacts in a shorter time, that is well funded. Faculty come together; they invent something new. It could be they invent a new method, a new model, a new way of working together, a new way of teaching, a new way of collaborating with people outside of the academy. It will be that kind of space that will allow something that builds on what you know but that is different.
Boom: How is thinking of ourselves as engaged in constructing a future together with business, government, nonprofits, society, or communities changing what we do?
Duranti: Hanging out with business people, which these days I do more than I ever did before in my life, one of the most interesting things I’ve found is that they’re interested in people who are creative—that means that the humanities is very important for them —but they are also interested in people who can work together with other people in teams. So much of scholarly work traditionally is Lone Ranger kind of thing. The model of the lab in the sciences is very useful to think with and to use in the humanities and social sciences. And we have a few good examples of that in the social sciences, but that’s not the usual way of doing research and solving problems. So that’s why when I think about the future, I think about these other models, these other ways of doing things that are built on collaborations that might have been unthinkable ten or twenty years ago.
Boom: You’ve recently written a manifesto of sorts about how your discipline of anthropology should change to meet the challenges of the present and the future while recognizing that from the beginning it has been dependent on being engaged with the world outside academia, from donors who supported the first anthropologists at the University of California to employers who hire graduates today.
Duranti: We have always been engaged to some extent. And engagement with people who are outside of academia—and people who are not the state or the federal government—means that we actually need to be able to talk to the public at large. When you convince a potential donor to give you some money, you have to explain why it’s a good idea. And that actually makes you think, what is a good idea? What is it good for? Is it good for society? Do we really improve the human condition? Do we do something useful for people? So there’s that side of fundraising, for example, that has all kinds of implications about the relevance of our work for people outside of academia, which is something that often gets forgotten, not only in the social sciences, but everywhere in the university. Faculty need to be able to publish where they’re going to be recognized as scholars by their peers; that’s very important. But at the same time, we also need to write in a way that the public at large can understand. We have to be good at telling stories. And do it in a way that people outside academia hear the story and see the pictures and understand what it is that we do, because then they can see themselves.
Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?
Duranti: It would be interesting to look at the students coming to campus in the morning. What is that they carry in their backpacks? Will people still be carrying things in 2050? That’s an interesting question. We know now that they carry their phones and they look at them all the time. That we hadn’t seen before. They also carry some books, which we had a long time ago. But in 2050, what will they be carrying, if anything at all?
Image at top: The contents of a backpack belonging to a third-year, double-major UC student, 2013. PHOTOGRAPH BY JILLIAN KERN.
We talked to Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis,about the future of transportation.
Boom: What’s your favorite form of transportation?
Daniel Sperling: Bicycle for local trips, airplanes for long trips, and they average out to be not-so-high-carbon. I’ve just hit two million miles on United Airlines, which I’m not proud of.
Boom: Would you want to travel on Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop?
Sperling: If it were as fast and cheap as they say—800 miles per hour and $20 to get from the Bay Area to LA—I would be delighted to use it. There would be questions about how safe, secure, and quiet it is, but if it ever lived up to its billing, yes, it would be very attractive. But those chances are slim.
Boom: What is your vision for transportation in 2050?
Sperling: Less urban sprawl so that it is much easier to use neighborhood electric vehicles, biking and walking for local trips. The small electric vehicles might be automated and would operate on electrified lightweight tracks that can be constructed easily and cheaply because the cars would be light. When the vehicles go off the tracks, they would have a small battery or fuel cell that would allow them to go on local streets and travel perhaps thirty miles into rural areas. On top of that, we’d also want to develop a suite of new mobility services that take advantage of modern communication technologies. We’d be able to access demand-responsive vans though smart phones to pick us up within a few minutes—kind of like a SuperShuttle to the airport but with a quicker response and able to access any destination in a metropolitan area, not just airports. We would also have smart carpooling services, so if people are going to a ballgame, or to work, and if they knew their neighbors were also going in that direction, they could carpool. All of these new mobility services exist, but there are all kinds of barriers that inhibit them from being more successful. We have to create incentives to support these companies and not try to quash them. By 2050 I think these transit options will be very common. They will account for a significant share of passenger travel by then.
Boom: As people move closer to the places they work and socialize, will we all be traveling less over the course of our days in 2050?
Sperling: It’s already happening. In California we have a law that encourages reductions in vehicle use and sprawl, with specific targets for 2020 and 2035—the Sustainable Communities Act of 2008. People are traveling less for a variety of reasons, including desire to avoid traffic congestion. But it is also because people go through a lifecycle. When they get married and have kids, they tend to want more space. But after the kids are gone, most people want to revert back to smaller homes, easier access to services and entertainment, and thus more compact land use. If we recognize that many people prefer a lifestyle that is centered on more density, and we built our cities and neighborhoods accordingly, then we would see a dramatic reduction in vehicle use. We would see a great increase in walking and biking, and use of small neighborhood cars as well.
Boom: When will we see public investment to support the infrastructure for these alternative mobility services and vehicles?
Sperling: If we depend on public investment, nothing will happen. It has to be private investment. The cost is not large. Here at UC Davis at the Institute of Transportation Studies, we’ve estimated that the cost of switching to an electric and fuel cell vehicle system would be about $100 billion over fifteen years. That seems like a lot of money, but when you consider that we spend about $500 billion for gasoline per year in the United States and a total of almost $2 trillion every year to own and operate our cars, it’s a drop in the bucket. The question is, where do we find that $10 billion per year? It won’t be through taxpayer subsidies. One way is through feebate programs where car buyers pay fees for gas guzzlers and get rebates for clean, efficient cars—with taxpayers paying little or nothing.
Boom: What will the car-to-person ratio be in 2050?
Sperling: There are currently about eight cars for every ten people—and I think it’s going to be the same in 2050. What will be different are the types of vehicles. There will be many of those small neighborhood cars and automated cars running on lightweight tracks, all of them running on electricity and/or fuel cells. We’re going to continue to have a transportation system based on personal mobility, because that’s what people want.
Boom: What would you put in a time capsule for 2050?
Sperling: I’d insert a Hummer SUV as a symbol of how obscenely inefficient our transport system had become around the turn of the century.
We talked to Sharon Dolovich, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law and an expert on the law, policy, and theory of prisons and punishment, about the future of the troubled California prison system.
Boom: If you were put in charge of California’s prisons tomorrow, what are the first three changes you would make?
Sharon Dolovich: The first thing I would do is form a sentencing commission to rethink California’s sentencing policy from the ground up. If it’s done well, it could lead to a significant reduction in the number of people not only in California’s prisons but also in county jails, which is where the overflow from prisons is now being sent. A wisely approached sentencing commission agenda could lead to a smaller and, therefore, more humane system. Other changes I would like to see made include a rethinking from top to bottom of the use of solitary confinement, and the institution of meaningful parole reform. Parole reform could reduce the number of people in custody without any appreciable public safety threat, and reforming the use of solitary confinement would change the culture of the prison, how prisoners feel about their prospects, and the willingness of people at all levels of the prison system to engage in a healthy and positive way with the day-to-day program of the prison environment. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see a likely pathway to the implementation of those changes.
Boom: What needs to be done to accommodate older, sicker prisoners as our prison population ages, and will we make those changes?
Dolovich: One thing to understand about the graying prison population is that people age much faster in prison than they do outside prison. Without making changes, we will have high-security old-age homes all over the state. So what can we do? I hate to be boring about this, but we need to take a fresh look at sentencing policies. Not only do we need to reduce our reliance on long sentences, but we also need to think about more meaningful opportunities for parole for people who have done several decades in prison but are now forty-, fifty-, sixty-years-old and are very unlikely to commit new crimes. All the studies show that long-term lifers who are in their forties or older have extremely low recidivism rates. We aren’t getting any public safety payoff from keeping them in custody, and it’s costing us a lot of money.
Boom: Does this mean we’re going to start releasing old and sick prisoners with no way to care for themselves in large numbers into the community?
Dolovich: There are two possibilities. The state might say, “Too bad for you; rely on the programs we have and if they’re not enough, die in the streets for all we care.” Or we might take the more enlightened course and recognize that we have a problem that to some extent we’ve created ourselves by the profligate use of extremely long sentences. We might say, look, we’re saving a lot of money on their custody. We could take some of the money that we save on early release and develop state-run decent care facilities for them. The problem, of course, is that reinvesting some of the savings on custody into decent care for former prisoners will likely (and reasonably) elicit objections that there are plenty of people who didn’t commit crimes who need decent care at or near the end of life. The obvious answer would be to provide decent care for everyone who needs it, but barring that, I concede that my proposal for caring for elderly former prisoners is likely to be a nonstarter.
Boom: Assuming the trend of de-escalation of the drug war continues, what will the prison population look like in 2050?
Dolovich: You might automatically assume that it would be a more violent population, because if you have fewer people in custody for drug crimes, then you’ll have a higher percentage of violent, serious offenders in custody. But that assumption fails to take into consideration the way that prison conditions themselves create a culture of violence. Counterintuitively, it’s possible that you might see a safer, more humane atmosphere in prisons because prisons would be running at a reasonable capacity, and this could create renewed space for programming, and for people to feel safe without having to rely on the gangs for protection. People in custody thus might be less likely to engage in the destructive practices that make so many prisons like gladiator schools.
Boom: Where will the political will to take the treatment of prisoners seriously come from?
Dolovich: If such political will does emerge, there will likely be several reasons why. One, the cost of incarcerating in the current manner is an ill-advised use of funds. It’s not buying us the long-term public safety that it should. Second, we will confront more directly the fact that our method of incarcerating is at odds with the public interest. What we really want is a system that will release people better fit for socially productive lives, but we’re doing the opposite in many cases. Even though there are a lot of lifers in California, the vast majority of people in California prisons are going to be released some time; and unless we find a pathway to more humane treatment, many of them are unlikely to be successfully reintegrated into society. But the only way society is going to commit to meaningful reform is if we are collectively invested in and recognize an obligation to the people we incarcerate. Politicians are starting to use the language of “shared humanity,” “second chances,” “dignity”—terms that remind people on the outside that people in custody are human beings. Are we going to see the emergence of that language in California? I don’t know. But if in 2050 we look back on the current situation as a disaster that we managed to escape from with thoughtful, wise reforms, it will only be because in the intervening years we started to think differently about the shared humanity of the people in custody.
Boom: And the chances of us tackling those issues by 2050?
Dolovich: Slim to none, but one never knows. Social change comes when there are urgent problems that force themselves onto the public agenda. What we’re seeing now in California is a perfect storm of problems emanating from the prison system, and the resulting effects may force a rethinking of our current policies.
Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?
Dolovich: Three documents. The first two are the Ninth Circuit three-judge panel order and the Supreme Court affirmance of that order in Brown v. Plata. The panel order provides a vivid picture of the crisis over the last ten or fifteen years in the California prison system, and the Supreme Court decision makes clear just how terrible the situation is in California, and how bad things have to get before the Supreme Court will side with prisoners in such a far-reaching way. The other document is the list of demands made by the Short Corridor Collective in Pelican Bay for the reduced use of solitary confinement. It says a lot about where the California prison system is today and what is wrong with the current state of things.
We asked Thad Kousser, associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego and the coauthor and editor of several books, to talk to us about how the politics in California might continue to evolve over the next fifty years.
Boom: How will California’s changing demographics change our politics and priorities?
Thad Kousser: Just this year we finally have seen the coming to fruition of California’s march toward diversity and how that’s changed politics and policy. Latinos played a major role in getting Governor Brown elected in 2010, and the reward finally came with the major education overhaul in this year’s budget deal, which absolutely transforms the way schools are funded from the schools in richer areas getting more money to schools that have more high-needs students, and especially more ESL getting the lions’ share of the increase in funding. It benefits all the constituents of the Latino legislative caucus in Sacramento, and it benefits the Latino voters who delivered Jerry Brown his victory.
We’ve already seen California step back from its Three Strikes law and change its approach to its prison population. That’s certainly an issue that’s been tied into race. I think the other question will be how will we deal with the next round of budget cuts, which will be inevitable—we’ll always have a budget crisis. Will we deal with this by primarily cutting social services, which is how we mostly got through this budget crisis, or will we deal with it primarily by raising taxes? We will see more Latino power, but as Latinos have become the plurality and will become the majority, does the political division become less salient?
Boom: What are the prospects for the Republican Party in California?
Kousser: In the short term, Republican prospects are so dim that I think we’ll see a very different Republican party a generation from now. There’s no question in anyone’s mind, not least the minds of Republicans, that the party needs to adapt or become a permanent minority. But it’s not as if the party chair can flip a switch and have Republicans moderate, stop talking about gay marriage and immigration. These are still issues that are central to the remaining Republican base in California and important to a lot of its leaders. But there’s universal recognition that the party cannot survive California’s new demography with the platform it has today. Over twenty or thirty years, we’ll see a Republican party that maybe looks like the party of Earl Warren’s years rather than that of Pete Wilson’s time.
But Republicans who run away from the party nationally always have the ability to make their own politics. If you’ve got $100 million to spend on advertisements or the kind of political capital that someone like Condoleeza Rice has, you have the chance to change the party’s brand. Otherwise, I don’t see Republicans winning any of the other statewide offices for a while. But there might be some opportunity at the local level where candidates can have a personal relationship with voters, like in city council and mayor’s races. But in assembly districts, in congressional districts, when you’re running for state controller, it’s hard to get the attention of enough Californians to change their minds about who the party is.
Boom: Will we have real dramatic reform by 2050?
Kousser: We haven’t had a constitutional convention since 1879, yet we’ve amended our constitution 500 times in the last century. We amended it five times in 2010. We’ve rewritten the rules of our government in really important ways. In the coming years, we may see tinkering with the tax code. If you see a Supreme Court striking down contribution limits and disclosure laws—which is not a certainty but a clear possibility—you’ll see renewed attention to changing state campaign finance laws. Such changes at the national level might also make voters willing to invest in a robust public financing system for candidates. The chances of that happening are low, but greater than zero.
California democracy demands a lot of voters. It means we have to make choices about lots of candidates who we don’t know too much about, and we have to make choices about initiatives that are really complicated. I think most of the reforms are aimed at taking advantage of new technology that give voters better information so that, without devoting their lives to the study of California politics, they can make informed decisions, and to try to give a counterbalance to the groups that are giving us lots of information now, which is whoever can afford the thirty-second TV ads.
Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?
Kousser: I’d have to look around the cars in my city and see if someone still has a Filner for Mayor bumper sticker.
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of California’s best-known and well-loved, living science fiction writers. A prolific writer, author of two trilogies and several other novels, he is one of the few science fiction novelists who still dares envision utopia—not the static and socially constrained utopias of Thomas More or Edward Bellamy, but dynamic, complex, multicultural societies that always have to struggle for and reflect on their own futures. Robinson earned a Ph.D. from UC San Diego, where he worked with the legendary postmodern literary scholar Fredric Jameson and wrote his dissertation on science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. He cares deeply about California and is actively involved with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego. Robinson is also a generous conversationalist. When not holed up at home in Davis, California, working on his next book, he can often be found out in the world these days talking about climate change and political change, and thinking out loud with scientists, activists, writers, and readers about the future. We spent a leisurely afternoon conversing with him at his garden writing table in Davis.
Kim Stanley Robinson at home. PHOTOGRAPH BY URSULA K. HEISE.
Boom: You write about other states, other countries, and other planets. Yet, you clearly identify yourself as a California writer. Why?
Robinson: I come from California. I grew up in an agricultural community: Orange County when there were orange groves. I lived in one of the first suburban intrusions into the orange groves. So right out my back yard, I could see nothing but orange trees. I loved to read, and my favorite book was Huckleberry Finn. I thought I could be Huckleberry Finn, and there was no evidence in front of my eyes that showed me things were any different from Missouri in the 1830s. I dressed as Huckleberry Finn, in cutoff blue jeans and a straw hat. I made my friends be Tom Sawyer and the other characters. But then in my teenage years, Orange County was transformed really rapidly. I read somewhere that five acres a day of orange groves were pulled out and turned into suburbia, every day for ten years. And so by the time I went off to college at UC San Diego, it was a completely different landscape. At that same time I started reading science fiction. New wave science fiction was what I dove into. Modernism was being expressed in science fiction, and it was extremely exciting. And it struck me that it was an accurate literature, that it was what my life felt like; so I thought science fiction was the literature of California. I still think California is a science fictional place. The desert has been terraformed. The whole water system is unnatural and artificial. This place shouldn’t look like it looks, so it all comes together for me. I’m a science fiction person, and I’m a Californian.
Boom: Is there a special brand of California science fiction?
Robinson: I think so. It began with people like Jack London and Upton Sinclair, and then the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society in the 1940s. This included Ray Bradbury, who moved with his parents to Los Angeles when he was young, like I did, both of us from Waukegan, Illinois, but him maybe twenty years earlier. Bradbury was always focused on what modernization was doing to human beings, to the nontechnological aspects of humanity. There was also Robert Heinlein, who was living in Los Angeles in the forties. Crazy Bob they called him when he was young. He was always a strange amalgam. And then there was Philip K. Dick in northern California, also Poul Anderson and Jack Vance, Frank Herbert, and in her childhood, Ursula Le Guin. It turns out that many of the most interesting science fiction writers were in California. There’s something strange and powerful about California, as a landscape and an idea, so the place may have inspired the literature.
Boom: Do you think that has to do with the national imaginary that associates California with the future?
Robinson: Yes, I think that’s right. It’s the westward motion. You see it in Robinson Jeffers: that world civilization just kept going west until it hit California, then it had to stop and figure things out. This is all a fairy tale, but it’s powerful. It is an imaginary. And then also you’ve got Hollywood. You can think of California as the Marilyn Monroe of places, beautiful but fragile, seeming a little dim or spacey, but brilliant in odd ways, funny, and, you know, endangered. Everybody pays attention to it. It’s too famous for its own good.
Boom: Your Three Californias trilogy lays out very different visions for California’s future. Which of the three Californias would you want to live in?
Robinson: Pacific Edge without a doubt. Pacific Edge was my first attempt to think about what would it be like if we reconfigured the landscape, the infrastructure, the social systems of California. I think eventually that’s where we’ll end up. It may be a five hundred year project. I thought of it as my utopian novel. But the famous problem of utopian novels as a genre is that they are cut off from history. They always somehow get a fresh start. I thought the interesting game to play would be to try to graft my utopia onto history and presume that we could trace the line from our current moment to the moment in the book. I don’t think I succeeded. I wish I had had the forethought to add about twenty pages of expository material on how they got to that society. Later I had a lot of dissatisfactions with Pacific Edge. You can’t have this gap in the history where the old man says, well, we did it, but never explains how. But every time I tried to think of the details it was like—well, Ernest Callenbach wrote Ecotopia, and then explained how they got to it in Ecotopia Emerging. And there’s not a single sentence in that prequel that you can believe. So, Pacific Edge was my attempt, a first attempt, and I think it’s still a nice vision of what Southern California could be. That coastal plain is so nice. From Santa Barbara to San Diego is the most gorgeous Mediterranean environment. And we’ve completely screwed it. To me now, it’s kind of a nightmare. When I go down there it creeps me out. I hope to spend more of my life in San Diego, which is one of my favorite places. But I’ll probably stick to west of the coast highway and stay on the beach as much as I can. I’ll deal, but we can do so much better.
An orange tree is pulled up in Orange County. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF ORANGE COUNTY ARCHIVES.
Boom: On the jacket of Pacific Edge it says you still love Orange County.
Robinson: Poor Orange County. Autopia, as I called it in The Gold Coast. The truth of the matter is I’ve spent hardly any time there since my parents moved away in 1991. I recently went to Newport Beach. Everything was the same, except the people. Instead of the people being all white, they were a mix of black and brown and white. That was beautiful to see, it looked like a world place, cosmopolitan in a way it hadn’t been. Do you love where you were when you were growing up? Well, yes—especially if you had good parents, a happy childhood, a beach. But I’ve found you can actually outlive nostalgia itself. I didn’t know you could do that, but I have.
Boom: Is California two states or more?
Robinson: I’ve lived half my life in the south and half in the north. I like thinking California is one place. It’s big. It’s various. It’s an entire country. It’s an entire planet.
Boom: In The Gold Coast, your dystopian novel in the California trilogy, and in your other dystopian novels, are you issuing a warning about where we’re headed?
Robinson: I am issuing a warning, yes. That’s one thing science fiction does. There are two sides of that coin, utopian and dystopian. The dystopian side is, if we continue, we will end up at this bad destination and we won’t like it. That’s worth doing sometimes. But I won’t do the apocalypse. That is not realist. It is more of a religious statement. I like disaster without apocalypse. Gold Coast is dystopian. And a lot of it has come true since it came out in 1988.
Boom: But, as you’ve said, all of California in some ways has been terraformed. It’s not natural in the way we usually conceive of natural. Are we as gods, as Steward Brand famously proclaimed, so we better get good at it?
Robinson: California is a terraformed space. I think we have accidentally become terraformers, but of course we are not gods. We don’t actually know enough about ecology, or even about bacteria, to do what we want to do here. We could make environmental changes that could do damage that we can’t recover from, so it’s dangerous. We’re more like the sorcerer’s apprentice. We can do amazing things on this planet, out of hubris, and partial ignorance, and yet we are without the powers to jerk the system back to health if we wreck it. If ocean acidification occurs, we don’t have a chance to shift that back. So we’ve accidentally cast ourselves into this role by our scientific successes, but we don’t have the power to do what we need to do, so we need to negotiate our situation with the environment. The idea that we’re living in the Anthropocene is correct. We are the biggest geological impact now; human beings are doing more to change the planet than any other force, from bedrock up to the top of the troposphere. Of course if you consider twenty million years and plate tectonics, we’re never going to match that kind of movement. It’s only in our own temporal scale that we look like lords of the Earth; when you consider a longer temporality, you suddenly realize we’re more like ants on the back of an elephant. By no means do we have godlike powers on this planet. We have a biological system we can mess up, a thin wrap on the planet’s surface, like cellophane wrapping a basketball. But there is so much we don’t know. You can do cosmology with more certainty than ecology.
The view from Mount Wanda, John Muir National Historic Site. PHOTOGRAPH BY WAYNE HSIEH.
Boom: Speaking of terraformed, the Delta, where you live here in Davis, is a great example of a terraformed landscape.
Robinson: It’s kind of great. It’s troubled, but I think it’s still beautiful. I like these human-slash-natural landscapes. I like terraformed landscapes. The Central Valley has been depopulated of its Serengeti’s worth of wild creatures, and that’s a disaster. But you could do amazing agriculture in the Central Valley and add wildlife corridors, where the two could coexist in a palimpsest, big agriculture and the Serengeti of North America, occupying the same space. And then it would be that much more interesting and beautiful. If you went out there to the edge of Davis now, you would see nothing in terms of animals. But if you went out there and it was filled with tule elk and all the rest of the animals and birds of the Central Valley biome, occasionally a bear would come down out of the hills; and, well, you couldn’t run alone out there, because of the predators. You’d have to run in a group. But humans are meant to run in groups. The solo thing is dangerous. So it would all come back to a more natural social existence. This is the angle of utopianism that I’ve been following. It’s a kind of natural-cultural amalgam, whereas utopian literature historically was mostly a social construct, and it was kind of urban. Utopia was thought of as a humanist space, but when you think of humans as part of a much larger set of life forms, then you get to a utopia that includes it all and is a process. I haven’t actually written the novel that would put all of this together, because each of my novels has been a different part of the puzzle and a different attempt at it. So I keep having an idea for the book yet to come. Seems like I might start another one like that sometime soon.
California is a terraformed space.
Boom: If your utopia is not humanist, what is it?
Robinson: I don’t think of myself as a humanist in the usual definition, but I’m definitely not a believer in deep ecology either. I don’t like the Ludditeism and antihumanism of deep ecology. I call myself a shallow ecologist. We’re completely part of the biosphere and networked with, and our health is dependent on it. But Gary Snyder among others has taught me that the nature-culture divide is a blurry, unnatural divide; we’re interpolated with the planet. The more we learn, the more we realize we’re “bubbles of earth.” But we’re also its self-consciousness. We’re its most articulate language speakers. We’re the ones who can mess things up really badly. But I can’t go with the part of the environmental movement that is antitechnological. We’re so technological. I’ve been thinking about this and trying to look at if from a different angle. Can we find a balance, a way of doing things by the use of science and technology and political cleverness, that we could get to permaculture?
Robinson: I prefer that term to sustainability. Sustainability is a captured word, and sustainable development is a captured phrase, a kind of greenwashing. Now it means, we can keep on doing capitalism and get away with it. Permaculture on the other hand implies permanence, but also permutation—some kind of dynamic stability or robustness, by making really long-term health the goal.
Boom: Even with climate change?
Robinson: California could maybe handle sea level rise better than a lot of other places. Its coastline is not a drowned coastline like the East Coast, so although the Delta would be in big trouble, most of the California coastline is steep enough to take a lot of the projected sea level rise—although the beaches will be in trouble. Right here we’re about fifty feet above sea level. So the maximum sea level rise projected for the next couple centuries would remain a ways over there to the south.
Boom: So we can just adapt to climate change in California?
Robinson: No, that’s not right either. We are in a moment where we have to change, or we’ll get to a situation that is not even adaptable. Adaptation is a word like sustainability, because it suggests that we could cook the planet and it still might be OK. That isn’t true, and besides, we haven’t cooked it yet. So it’s time to act now and actually do mitigation. I’ve run into young environmental philosophers who say, “Be realistic, Stan. We’re headed for a five-degree rise in temperature; we have to adapt.” But this I think is a pseudo-realism. Think about mass extinction: how do you adapt to that? It would drive us down; we might not go extinct too, but we would suffer so badly. No. We need mitigation. We need to fight the political fight. We need a carbon tax; we need everything except giving up. To say we’ve lost the battle already is just another science fiction story. It’s saying that we will lose. But beyond 2013, nothing has happened yet. Path dependency is not the same as inevitability. People are way too chicken when faced with the supposed massive entrenchment of capitalism. It’s just a system of laws, and we change laws all the time.
The view from Skylab Crater on Mars. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NASA.
Boom: Don’t we need both mitigation and adaptation? Even if we could stop emissions altogether right now, it will get hotter. We will have to do significant adaptation.
Robinson: That’s true to an extent. But it’s a later moment where we shift to adaptation, as opposed to mitigation. We need to mitigate now. We know how to do that: we decarbonize power generation and transport systems. But we haven’t put together a coherent political or ecological picture of what adaptation means. Right now it just means giving up. It’s saying economics trumps ecology. In biophysical terms, in terms of physical reality, that just isn’t the case.
Boom: Climate science has become an important part of your work, in your writing, and outside of your writing.
Robinson: I think the scientific community is going through a revolutionary moment. They already raised their hands and said we have to pay attention to climate change. And yet we haven’t changed very much. Now they have to take different strategies and renew the effort. I talk to them about this. I try to make them aware that they are already utopian actors by being scientists. And this notion that they have, that there has to be separation between what science does and what everything else does, is not quite true; it’s not the full story. They need to start thinking of themselves as political actors.
Boom: Political? Utopian? But haven’t science and business as usual also gone hand in hand?
Robinson: My story here is that from the very start science and capitalism were very tightly bound together, like conjoined twins, but were not at all the same, and indeed were even opposed systems of thinking and organization. They were born around the same time, yes; but if you regard them as identical, you’re making a very bad mistake. Capitalism’s effect on humanity is not at all what science’s effect is on humanity. If you say science is nothing but instrumentality and capitalism’s technical wing, then you’re saying we’re doomed. Those are the two most powerful social forces on the planet, and now it’s come to a situation of science versus capitalism. It’s a titanic battle. One is positive and the other negative. We need to do everything we can to create democratic, environmental, utopian science, because meanwhile there is this economic power structure that benefits the few, not very different from feudalism, while wrecking the biosphere. This is just a folk tale, of course, like a play with sock puppets, like Punch and Judy. But I think it describes the situation fairly well.
Boom: What about democracy?
Robinson: I think democracy is crucial, but it needs the power of science to prevail. Democracy can be bought. Capitalism can defeat democracy, unless there is democratic science and science for democracy. The big heavyweight that could actually defeat capitalism in this world is science. It’s the method that copes with the natural world and makes both the necessities and the toys, and makes the food for the seven billion. Democracy can get whipped if it doesn’t have this utopian practice of science backing it. Secularism, the rule of law—these are aspects of scientizing the social world. They are part and parcel with the scientific method. Once again, I’m just talking sock puppets, but this is the way I have been trying to explain it in my novels.
Boom: But one of the difficulties of science is that it’s not accessible to people without very specialized knowledge. It’s sometimes very difficult to see how you square science with democratic deliberation.
Robinson: Science is not esoteric compared to, say, law. Every scientific abstract is trying its best to be as clear and accessible as possible. Science as it was originally designed is supposed to work like this: I find something out about the world; I share it with you. You find out more; you share it with me. So in its pure state, it is an incredibly open and public procedure. You can’t do that with legal documents, you can’t do that with economics, and you can’t do that with a lot of postmodern criticism. Science is much more open and transparent than a lot of the disciplines we have. It gets complex because reality is complex. But I’m still convinced that we must seize on science as a way out of this mess. It’s a kind of quantified and experimental realism, or praxis.
Boom: You describe your science fiction as realist, but there are sometimes surrealist moments, like in 2312, when a depauperate Earth is repopulated by wild animals that are bred off planet and dropped gently from the sky in bubbles.
Robinson: That moment is like a painting, maybe a Magritte. It struck me like an image out of a dream. It doesn’t make sense in some ways, and yet it’s what we are talking about when we talk about rewilding. And I was thinking about habitat corridors, and how both humans and habitat could exist together, by the creation of corridors given to the animals, and so the image came from that, like a poem. When it did, I thought this is good. I don’t care if it makes sense or not; it’s so beautiful. So I wrote the scene. Novel writing is an irrational and emotional business. I’m mostly an analytical person, an English major, so it’s possible for me to overthink things. But the image is crucial, the story is crucial. So if you’re writing something that feels right, then skate fast over thin ice and fly with it! Then you can have your characters argue about it afterward, as people would if something like that were really to happen.
Boom: You spend a lot of time in the Sierra Nevada, but the mountains only make a brief appearance in your science fiction. Why is that?
Robinson: It’s been hard to find science fiction stories that would include the Sierra, although I’ve tried. There is a sense in which my Mars is entirely a Sierra Nevada space. And the actual range itself shows up in The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge and in Sixty Days and Counting. But in the future, I want to write about the Sierra Nevada much more extensively and in more detail. I know what it’s like up there, and I think it could be useful to share that knowledge. There’s been too much writing about the mountains as a dangerous place, a place for risk taking. What I want to do is more welcoming, a writing that says come back to the Sierra, use it as a space to ramble and look around. It’s not a place of death-defying stupidity, but actually a place to renew yourself, as a suburban or urban Californian especially. So, when I write about the Sierra Nevada directly, which I have not done yet at any length, I want to do it as nonfiction, some kind of not-yet-defined nature writing.
Boom: Is there a model for this kind of writing?
Robinson: Well, John Muir. Muir is good!
Boom: In Muir’s writing nature is often personified. Are you interested in that model? Or do you have a different idea of nature’s agency?
Robinson: I’ve read all of Muir now and studied his life. I would say he does not personify nature so much as worship it. His attitude is devotional, but he usually doesn’t define it as a totality; he speaks of particulars. One thing I’ve noticed about Muir is that his best writing is not his most famous writing. His best Sierra writing is in his early journals, and his first scientific articles, which were published in the New York Tribune and made him famous. These are awkward but quite beautiful articles. In them he is writing about why the landscape looks like it does. The Ice Age itself was a new idea at the time he wrote, and he was the one who applied Agassiz’s glacial theory to the sculpting of the Sierra. So this is his great writing, which is both scientific and devotional at the same time. Later, when he became a political figurehead and wrote The Mountains of California and his other famous books, those are like Victorian magazine articles. They are bland. They are not his best writing. So his reputation as a writer has suffered. But then at the very end of his life, E.H. Harriman hired a secretary to follow him around so that Muir could dictate his memoirs to him, and that again is great: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. So we have great writing, then mediocre writing, and then really great talking.
Boom: You have two sons. If science fiction was your literature growing up, what is their literature?
Robinson: They and their friends seem to have an intense interest in fantasy literature as a kind of escape from their historical situation. They’re a little bit symptomatic. Young people of my generation liked science fiction because the future was going to be better. There seemed to be real opportunity. The world was your oyster, and the future was going to be amazing. That was quite powerful. Now, when you see what new science fiction has become for the young—it’s The Hunger Games, it’s dystopia—that’s a very powerful image of how they feel right now. They feel this: we’ve been pitted against each other, big forces are in control of our lives, and we’re going to be fighting for scraps. We’re going to be hungry. That is another dream, a surrealistic dream about capitalism, of how it feels to the young and how they’re responding. And then with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, that’s wish fulfillment, where you get back out in the forest and ride on horses. It’s already interesting to imagine that, in the middle of their suburban lives looking at screens. Also, the good guys and the bad guys are easily distinguishable, and there are organized forces to fight the bad guys, who are an other and not you. It’s very simplistic. But these stories we love when we are young are always allegories of our wishes and dreams. So it’s very interesting. My own contribution, then, would be to keep on presenting an image of the future that is positive and achievable, and doesn’t take place five million years from now, or five million light years away, but is just Earth and the solar system in our own near future—something that people think might happen, a kind of realism. And I get my readers, and I see that many of them are young, although not all. Because I think people do continue to crave utopia.
The Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, California. PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN PERCY.
Boom: Do you think there is something special California can contribute to this utopian project?
Robinson: I do. I think we’re a working utopian project in progress, between the landscape and the fact that California has an international culture, with all our many languages. It’s got the UC system and the Cal State system, the whole master plan, all the colleges together, and Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. It’s some kind of miraculous conjunction. But conjunctions don’t last for long. And history may pass us by eventually, but for now it’s a miraculous conjunction of all of these forces. So I love California. Often when I go abroad and I’m asked where I’m from, I say California rather than America. California is an integral space that I admire. And we’re doing amazing things politically. I like the way the state is trending more left than the rest of America. And San Francisco is the great city of the world. I love San Francisco. I think of myself as living in its provinces—and provincials, of course, are often the ones who are proudest of the capital. And many of my San Francisco friends exhibit a civic pride that is intense, and I think justified. So there’s something going on here in California. I do think it’s somewhat accidental; so to an extent, it’s pride in an accident, or maybe you could say in a collective, in our particular history. So there’s no one thing or one person or group that can say, ah, we did it! It just kind of happened to us, in that several generations kept bashing away, and here we are. But when you have that feeling and it goes on, and continues to win elections and create environmental regulations, the clean air, the clean water, saving the Sierra, saving the coast: it’s all kind of beautiful. Maybe the state itself is doing it. Maybe this landscape itself is doing it.
This interview was conducted by Jon Christensen, Jan Goggans, and Ursula K. Heise, and edited by Jon Christensen and Kim Stanley Robinson.
Photograph at top: The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. BY DANIEL PARKS.
We asked Josh Kun, associate professor of communication and journalism at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California and author of several books, to tell us about the future of music.
Boom: How will the music industry and artists adapt to declining record sales and online music?
Josh Kun: We are obviously living through a period of great transition; and like all transitions, this is a moment of tremendous possibility and tremendous risk. Artists and companies alike are finding a landscape loaded with glorious pros and perilous cons, neither of which manifest themselves in the same way for either party (certainly one effect is that artists have to start thinking like companies more than ever before). I hope that fewer and fewer people are merely adapting and reacting to a model that was bound to be busted, but instead are seeing this as an opportunity: the old foundation is cracked, shaky, and in many cases condemned, so let’s not try to repair it. Let’s cheer its teardown and then build something new that offers musicians and musical entrepreneurs a more just and ethical platform with which to work.
Boom: What might “songs in the key of L.A.” sound like in 2050?
Kun: K-pop sung in Mixtec from 6 Street. Cambodian punk covers of “Hotel California” from Long Beach. Instrumental Indian 8-chip tunes from Fullerton that sample vintage Rodney Bingenheimer KROQ broadcasts. Afghani hip hop from Laurel Canyon. Whatever they sound like, I hope they carry at least some of the spirit of Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” which is more of a city prayer than a song.
Boom: You’ve written about the intimate relationship between music, identity, and race. How do you imagine different identities developing into the future, and what will they sound like?
Kun: As the national population continues to grow into its soon-to-be-realized majority African American, Latino/a, and Asian American demographics, I think it will be very interesting to see to what extent the new racial and ethnic lines are crossed and to what extent old hierarchies continue to be policed. The post-iPod, post-digital, post-millennial, post-twerk (or whatever they’ll be dubbed) generation of listeners will probably continue to approach music with an increasing lack of responsibility and accountability for its racial and ethnic contexts and histories. (What, if anything, do we download when we download? How deep is streaming’s stream?) The challenge will be celebrating and relishing the horizontality of musical listening and production—the thrilling cross-cultural and cross-genre everythingness of how we listen—while maintaining a critical ear for the lingering verticality, the histories of inequality and hierarchy and exploitation, that remain embedded in the sounds of the future.
Boom: How might music help to forge a more socially just future in California?
Kun: The pressure to forge a more socially just future should, of course, not be put on music. But music can (as it always has) act as a guide for how to think and live differently, how to envision new political futures and not repeat the mistakes of the past. The real pressure, though, is not on the musicians, but on all of us as listeners. What are we refusing to hear? What can we listen for? Los Angeles refused to hear the black music of South Central for decades, music that prophesied and predicted two sets of uprisings. Since at least the late nineteenth century, California has refused to listen to the songs of Mexican California—and now seven years after the landmark immigration marches of 2006, the state could do itself a big favor by listening to contemporary regional Mexican music—one of the state’s most profitable music industries where labor, immigration, biculturalism, drug trafficking, and working-class “American” dreaming are among the key building blocks of some of our most popular music.
Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?
Kun: A Los Tigres del Norte phone card purchased at a Korean market.
The Boom interview: Ron Nichols, Department of Water and Power
Uneasy lies the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Before Ron Nichols was appointed general manager in January 2011, the nation’s largest municipal utility was run by five different men in five years.
Before moving to LA, Nichols was a high-powered consultant to water and energy utilities, first with his own firm, Resource Management International, and then with Navigant Consulting. His speciality: putting together tough deals, selling them, and making them work. He knows government and politics, too, having held positions with the California Department of Water Resources and the California Energy Commission.
He has a vision for the future of water and power. It’s not his alone. But he has made it his.
Get Los Angeles off of coal-fired power. Expand the city’s renewable energy sources. Implement the largest home solar program of any city in the nation. And reduce the city’s reliance on imported water by capturing more stormwater in LA watersheds, cleaning up contaminated groundwater, and reusing treated wastewater, while convincing customers to go along with rate hikes to pay to keep up a century-old system and invest in the future.
Nichols knows the territory. He knows it won’t be easy. And, yes, he has seen Chinatown.
Boom spoke with him about the legacy of the LA Aqueduct and the challenges ahead.
Boom: When we told people we were working on a special issue about the one hundredth anniversary of the LA Aqueduct, often the first thing they said was, “Oh, you mean, like, Chinatown?” Do you ever hear that? And how does that affect what you do?
Nichols: When word first came out that I was being appointed to this position, I received a half-a-dozen copies of Chinatown from people, saying, “Oh, you have to see this movie.” Well, you know, actually, I saw it when it came out. It was a very entertaining movie. That movie is very loosely based on past events. I don’t think it depicts what William Mulholland did and what the LA Aqueduct is to Los Angeles. It’s a useful foil. It’s a good opportunity for people to bring out their perceptions of the aqueduct and the issues associated with the Owens Valley and juxtapose that against what has really happened and, most importantly, what we’re doing going forward. I think the better story, the real story, is a story of an incredible undertaking of unprecedented proportions to develop an ingenious supply of water to help create one of the largest cities in the world. That’s an impressive story.
Boom:Is it true that most Southern Californians don’t know where their water comes from?
Nichols: I think that’s true. It’s human nature to look at a tap as it provides me water, just like when you look at your light switch. You flick it on and have light. You don’t think about where any of that came from. That’s just human nature.
Ron Nichols. Courtesy of LADWP.
Boom:Where does our water come from in Los Angeles?
Nichols: In an average year, about half of it comes from purchases from Metropolitan Water District. About a third of it comes from the Owens Valley through the LA Aqueduct, and the rest comes from water conservation, stormwater capture, recycled water, and groundwater. And the important thing is there’s very rarely an average year. And as a result, our water requirements in terms of what we purchase from MWD, imported largely from Northern California varies from 25 percent of our needs in a wonderful wet year, like we had three years ago, to 75 percent of our needs in a year like we’re having now, with two back-to-back drought years.
Boom:What does Los Angeles owe Owens Valley, if anything?
Nichols: I think we owe them our attention in terms of how we’re using the water and how we’re planning to use that water, the effects that our use of water has had and does have in Owens Valley. I think we owe them respect. And I think they need to understand the role that the water that we bring from the Owens Valley plays in Los Angeles and how important that water is to a city of four million people. There has been a century of difficult relations between the Owens Valley and LA. You don’t change that overnight, but we’re working on it.
Boom: Can the DWP make peace with Owens Valley?
Nichols: I guess it always depends on how you define peace. We’re working much better with Owens Valley than we have in the past. There is not a monolithic Owens Valley, though. There are agricultural users up there who would like to see more water for their use in the valley. There are persons who are very pleased that it hasn’t grown like a big valley town in the San Joaquin Valley. There are the tribes up there who are concerned about the impacts of development on their lands up there. So you can’t just paint Owens Valley with the same brush. There are those who are concerned about dust impacts. You can’t solve all of those interests simultaneously. And all of those interests themselves don’t necessarily agree with one another. But we’re doing our best to try to find a way to be better partners. And a perfect example is what we call our Owens Lake Master Project. We will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on doing a better job of mitigating dust with less water, while enhancing the environment for waterfowl and aesthetics—if we’re allowed to do it.
Boom: So what are the parts that you’ve not been allowed to do that you would like to do?
Nichols: Rather than have a well-established comprehensive plan on how you’re going to do that—that is, mitigate the dust on Owens Lake—it comes to us in large bite-sized pieces, obligations, with very tight deadlines. If we actually knew what the overall plan was going to be and where, we could come up with something much better. We could come up with something that doesn’t waste 95,000 acre-feet of water a year on mitigating dust when there are things that can be done without using anything close to that much water. We could do something that environmentally looks better in places where we could put water that works for waterfowl.
Boom: Can the new mayor Eric Garcetti play a role in making peace between LA and Owens Valley?
Nichols: No one has to put a gun to our head to say go up there and cooperate with the people in Owens Valley and the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District. We’ve extended our willingness to do that, but you need to have a willing partner on the other side. It takes two to tango.
Boom: Could shuttle diplomacy help?
Nichols: Well, here’s the challenge with that: To do shuttle diplomacy, you need a diplomat on the other side that represents the other side. And there is no one individual that truly speaks for the interests of all of Owens Valley on the other side. That’s been the challenge. You’ve got a single regulator up there that has a job that he perceives he has to do, and there is not a political body on the other side that says, “Well, what’s in the long-term best interest of Owens Valley, and how can we work collaboratively in a way to get something done there that works out not only for Owens Valley but all of California?”
Boom: Is the LA Aqueduct going to become less important or even more important in the future?
Nichols: I believe it will be even more important in the future. It was obviously vitally important at its birth to provide the volume of water that was necessary to build a city on. Fast-forward a hundred years: We’re not going to be growing massively going forward. We’re certainly not going to be using a lot more water. But it’s important to have some diversity of water supplies to have a reliable supply, and the Owens is an incredibly important piece of that and I think will be even more important going forward.
Boom: So why is water from Owens Valley even more important going forward?
Nichols: It’s important for us to be able to have a supply that we uniquely have rights to. There are three legs to the stool for our water supply. There’s Owens, there’s what we get from the Metropolitan Water District, which is 80 to 90 percent in normal years from Northern California, and there’s what we do locally here within the city. If we know that we’ve got those two other legs of that stool, of MWD and Owens, then we can set upon the investments that we need to do to try to firm up our local supplies through conservation, cleaning up our contaminated groundwater, stormwater capture, and recycled water. If there were uncertainty about whether Owens is going to be there, I’m not sure where we’re going to get the water that we need for a city of four million people.
Boom: If money were no object and you were the king of water in Los Angeles, how would you change our water system?
John Ferraro Office Building, LADWP headquarters. Photograph by Joshua Llaneza.
Nichols: There are two pieces of that. There’s the infrastructure that delivers to our customers and there’s the supply. On the infrastructure side, it would be wonderful not to wake up every day to a water break in our system. So I would love to be able to replace all of our aged pipes and pumps and other things to get us up to a totally modern distribution system. On the supply side, I’d like to be able to focus on cleaning up the groundwater aquifers in the San Fernando Valley. Get rid of those industrial solvents that came there in the World War II and post–World War II time frame, so that the water that’s there can continue to be used reliably and sustainably. That’s an important supply. I’d like to be able to complete the Owens Master Project to reduce the amount of water that we are using for dust control. And I’d like to be able to find a way to take highly treated water out of all of our wastewater and use that and put that into our groundwater aquifers to have that be a bigger piece of our long-term supply. All of those things take a lot of money, unfortunately.
Boom: But all of those things are actually in your plans.
Nichols: Yeah. I’d like to get them done tomorrow.
Boom: So how do you persuade the public—your customers—to support those kinds of investments when it means higher rates for them?
Nichols: It’s an education effort. And it’s something we’ve been doing over a number of years. I have spent, personally, a lot of time on it, over a year and a half, working through, identifying what our near-term water requirements were, to explain to people first, here are the supplies we have. Here’s the condition of our infrastructure. Here are our needs. And here is how we need to be able to do these things, both to meet regulatory requirements and to do it more sustainably and more wisely. I think we get substantial support for that in that process. But to get people comfortable with putting money down monthly to do that, it needs to be tangible. Tell me the project. Tell me exactly what you’re going to do. Show me that you’ve prioritized this in a way that makes the most sense, that you’re doing the best things first. We owe that to them and we’re doing that.
Boom: But we often hear people say, “That’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about the unions and their pensions.” How do you respond to that in public meetings?
Nichols: The question of the unions at DWP and our costs for labor get raised early and often. And I think people need to understand that, number one, unlike, say, the rest of the City of Los Angeles, where 90 percent of their costs are labor; 25 percent of our costs for LADWP are labor. So it’s not a big driver of our costs, and as a result, people aren’t going to be seeing rate increases because of the demands of our unions. Do we need to make certain that we’re being prudent in dealing with our unions and that we’re making certain that we’re not overspending? Of course. I think it’s very important to make a differentiation between DWP and DWP’s largest union. They’re not the same. DWP does play a meaningful role in city politics, but it does so by virtue of providing two phenomenally important commodities that make cities survive: water and power. And on the water side, it’s particularly important when you have a city of four million people living in an arid area that relies on water that doesn’t largely come from within its borders. Making certain that there’s water there and there’s power priced at a level that people are willing to pay and changing from a fairly high carbon power supply to a sustainable one are big issues. They’re important issues, and they loom large on the political horizon down at the city council and should. These are important issues for a city. They’re important issues for society. So, in that regard, DWP utility does play a significant role in politics. DWP, the utility, has nothing to do with elections. We don’t spend any money on elections. We don’t take positions on candidates. The union has taken its position. And they’re free to do that. And there’s been a long legacy of IBEW influence with respect to elections. I don’t have any say over that. Unfortunately, I think both the media and a lot of the public have difficulty making that separation between the union and the department. That’s unfortunate.
Boom: The other part of your portfolio is power. How do you balance the two, water and power?
Nichols: Both water and power systems are going through this phenomenal change at the same time. And it’s all about a combination of aged infrastructure and sustainability. We’re making huge changes on the power side as we move off of coal, as we help our customers use less energy and use it more wisely, as we ramp up to at least 33 percent renewable energy, as we rebuild all of our coastal gas-fired power plants to quit using once-through ocean cooling, we’re completely turning this utility upside-down in twelve or fourteen years. And that’s a huge process. But we’re doing the same thing on the water side. We’re covering all of our reservoirs. We’re rebuilding our pipelines. And we’re having to regularly recondition the LA Aqueduct. We’re spending billions of dollars on dust mitigation up on Owens Lake. We’re putting an incredible amount of money into recycled water and stormwater capture and pumping up our funding for water conservation, all at the same time. It would be wonderful if we could do one and then the other, but we can’t. So they pretty much occupy about an equal amount of my time.
Boom: Thinking about the future of water and power, it seems that we might reasonably expect new disruptive technologies that could substantially change how we generate energy, store it, and use it. But in water, not so much.
Nichols: Clearly, and there’s a reason for that. You get water from where it exists. We have a fixed amount of water on this planet. We haven’t found a way to manufacture new water. But you can manufacture electricity lots of different ways. As a result, the technological opportunities on the power side are significantly greater. Anybody who says they know fifty years from now what we’re going to be using to produce energy is crazy. Whereas on the water side, we know where our water is going to come from. We just need to prioritize our planning and our spending for it. If there were one technical area that I wish someone could come up with, it would be to have every multifamily home, unit, have its own individual water meter. Sixty percent of Angelenos live in multifamily homes. And the vast majority of those multifamily homes are in large enough structures that they don’t have a separate meter for each dwelling. They don’t have anything that causes them to pay directly for the water they use. And it’s very tough to replumb buildings. If somebody could come up with a way that could measure that water use at the point of use in multifamily buildings, to give a price signal to all of those customers to conserve more, that would be a technological difference. That would make a difference in this city.
Boom: How will climate change affect our water supply and what are you doing now to adapt to those changes?
Nichols: I’m one of those that believes climate change is real. We’re going to have greater heat that’s going to put potentially greater demand on water unless we change how we use it. And we’re going to have less water available. Or when it does come, it’s going to come in less of an even flow year-to-year than we had in the past. Those are big challenges. That’s one of the big drivers of why we decided to try to accelerate by a decade our local water management goals, because we think time is not on our side. And changing how people use water, and using and reusing here more locally is really important. There’s not a lot we can do about what it’s going to do in terms of changing the availability of supply, but we can change how wisely we use it.
Boom: A big chunk of LA’s water comes not from Owens Valley by the LA Aqueduct but from Northern California through the State Water Project. There is a terrific debate brewing about the future of that water supply, restoration of ecosystems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and a new conveyance system of tunnels under the Delta to bring freshwater into the State Water Project. What are your thoughts about what’s happening now in the Delta?
Nichols: I personally think the future of California, not just Southern California, depends upon resolving that issue and providing through that project or something similar to it, not more water—that’s where I think the misnomer is—not more water, but more assurance of the reliability of that water being there, irrespective of what climate change issues might be. I think it’s most important to Southern California overall, but speaking for Los Angeles, I think it’s critical that we know what we can reasonably expect to get from Northern California for at least the next century, and right now, given the uncertainty associated with environmental problems that are there, the impacts that could happen from a major seismic event, we don’t know. And that’s not an acceptable circumstance.
Boom: How should Los Angeles think of its role in the Delta?
Nichols: I think it’s important that we communicate in Sacramento that we have done an excellent job on water conservation in Los Angeles. Most people don’t realize that we use the same amount of water today cumulatively as we did over forty years ago in 1970, and yet we have more than a million people more than we had then. That’s pretty darn impressive. We’re going to continue to do an increasingly better job of our water use down here. We’re going to continue to get the squeal out of the pig of the water that’s available in Los Angeles. But we can’t be cut off from that supply. The city will wither. And I believe that there is a good solution that works for Northern California and Southern. This is speaking for somebody who spent thirty-five of my years living in Northern California.
The common belief, if you read it in the media, is that it’s a big water grab and we’re trying to increase it more for wasteful uses. In Southern California, nothing can be further from the truth. We have to get that clear message out to debunk that myth. I’m a water skier, and I’ve spent a lot of time up and down all over that Delta and used to be a fisherman up there as well. I’m not going to profess to be an expert on the Delta ecosystems. But from everything I’ve seen—and I’ve followed this issue for thirty-five years, back when I used to work for the first Brown administration when I was at the California Energy Commission, then the California Department of Water Resources in the seventies—that a solution like this is needed. We can’t continue on in the same fashion right now. It isn’t environmentally sustainable for the Delta. It’s not adequate for the reliability of water supply for Southern California. And this fix seems to be the best fix that I’ve seen in the thirty-five years or so that I’ve been in this business. And if it doesn’t work this time, it’s going to be a difficult challenge to try to do it again at a point in time that I fear is going to be a time when it has reached such a dire problem that it would be hard to get done in time.
This interview was conducted and edited by Jon Christensen.
Photograph at top: John Ferraro Office Building, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power headquarters, by Abhijit Patil.
jesikah maria ross works at the intersection of art, education, and community action, collaborating with communities to generate change. Not only has she been instrumental in the founding of such initiatives as the Bioneers Reel Change Agents Program and the Media Arts Institute, she has launched participatory youth media programs in South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, and South Sudan that have addressed equity issues worldwide. Her award-winning independent media projects have brought environmental justice issues to PBS and NPR. In her collaborations, residents engage in citizen storytelling and public dialogue or students partner with community members to create social issue documentaries. Before founding The Art of Regional Change (ARC), a joint initiative of the Davis Humanities Institute and the UC Davis Center for the Study of Regional Change, jesikah codirected Saving The Sierra: Voices of Conservation in Action (savinghesierra.org), which documents community efforts to conserve the culture, economy, and environment of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
I first encountered jesikah at the 2008 ARC launch. She stood on the parapet of a fountain in a courtyard, spread her arms wide, and enthusiastically described her model of using place-based media projects to bring about community self-empowerment and personal transformation.
She’d begun her love affair with video in college, and the activism she also began there carried her into the world of alternative media. She equipped herself further through graduate work in Community Studies and Development and day jobs in television production. With the university, she forged a dream job that blended being a community media facilitator, project director, and documentary media maker.
I began to work directly with jesikah at the start of her most recent poly-vocal, multimedia, multi-ethnic, intergenerational project, Restore/Restory.
jesikah maria ross welcoming the crowd at the Restore/Restory project debut and story showcase event. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
As I understand it, ARC has done a whole series of amazing university-community collaborations. Tell me about your latest project.
jesikah maria ross:
Restore/Restory is a collaborative public history project that tells the story of California by examining one small place here in Yolo County, the Cache Creek Nature Preserve.
I think when people hear “public history,” they think of something that involves people who have some training going out and getting information from other people, collecting oral histories as data, essentially, that gets gathered into an archive. Then other people with training use it somewhere down the line.
There are many ways to do public history. One is in the way you just described, which kind of follows a resource extraction model: professionals go into communities to extract resources that are then taken away and used by others. It’s a model that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with knowledge production; academics wouldn’t see themselves as being part of a corporation that does resource extraction.
Adding the collaborative component makes it into a completely different sort of beast altogether.
Yes. But you can see why it’s important to create reciprocal projects. You’re doing something to benefit you; once you actually involve other people, you have to ask, how will they benefit? Finding that out usually means you need to have a dialogue and some shared decision-making.
My drive to have communities represent themselves comes from deep experience of being left out of the frame myself, being misrepresented or unacknowledged. Not just me, but the issues I was working on. So it’s important to me that the people who give their stories feel like they are receiving something as well as giving and have some editorial control.
Did you push against that resource extraction model while you were working in the university?
Definitely, and I did that by using a counter-model of collaboration, cocreating projects with a local community-based organization and designing every project based on their needs. I had to stay very clear about how to bring students and scholars in to work with residents in a way that was respectful and supportive and built on what the residents were interested in as well. The question I kept asking was: how do we create something in line with the university’s land grant mission and with old-school community development principles?
In that spirit, in Restore/Restory, we brought stakeholders together to design and implement a project that would gather a wide range of stories about very different peoples’ experiences, understandings, and uses of the land that is now the Cache Creek Nature Preserve.
Let me just back up a little bit. I think it would be useful to say what the Preserve is, so we get a sense not only of how small a piece of land it is, but how fraught.
It’s a 130-acre parcel, not big, right on Cache Creek, which starts up north in Lake County, flows down through Yolo County through the Capay Valley and ends up in the Sacramento River Bypass. Along the way it’s feeding agriculture and ranching, recreation, and, of course, many other uses the people have for water.
And the Preserve is one section on it, sort of like a quarter-inch on a yardstick.
Exactly, on the lower part of the creek. The Preserve came about at the end of what is referred to as the Gravel Wars, a twenty-year battle that was really messy and acrimonious, as were many environmental struggles in the seventies and eighties, where jobs were pitted against the environment. In Yolo County, the top industry was agriculture and the second was mining aggregate—gravel—out of Cache Creek. Until legislation in the mid-seventies, mining companies weren’t required to do squat after extraction. Anyone living in that area, whether environmentally focused or not, saw moonscapes, trashed landscapes, because there was no requirement for the companies to do otherwise.
Most people in the environmental community wanted to stop the mining altogether. But the mining companies didn’t have to stop, they had the extraction rights, but they were willing to move their operations outside of the creek channel. Some agricultural community members wanted this because they had aggregate on their land, and they were going make money off of it. But they were also concerned about the effect on the land. And then you had a lot of people whose jobs and livelihoods depended on mining: the County who got huge revenue from it and all the businesses that support it.
The moonscape. This photograph of trucks carrying gravel from the creek bed ran with one of the articles tracking the gravel wars in The Davis Enterprise in May 1996. Photo courtesy of Todd Hammond/Enterprise file.
The County was trying to figure out a policy that would take into account all the different needs, but you know, government works just a little bit faster than erosion.
Such grievances were mounting that a group of activists came up with the idea to have a referendum, a public vote. That seemed like the best strategy to put the issue into the public consciousness and to force the mining companies to come to the table.
But something happened.
Yes. Between the plans that the County ratified and a public referendum to stop mining, an understanding arose that there needed to be an umbrella organization to bring the fighting parties together to find common ground. That was one impetus for starting the Cache Creek Conservancy. Another way I’ve heard it said is that the Cache Creek Conservancy was built into the planning process as the organization that would oversee creek restoration.
And along the way, the mining companies said, “We’ll pay this amount of money on the ton to provide for restoration,” right? That’s what funds the Cache Creek Nature Preserve.
Right. So the Cache Creek Conservancy was founded in the mid-nineties; but it didn’t even have a formal office. Around 1998, one of the mining companies, Teichert, had this piece of land that was right on the creek with an incredible variety of habitats: some of the oldest oak groves in Yolo County, some grassland. It had, of course, the riparian corridor.
Grasslands stretching out from Cache Creek. The riparian corridor of the creek is marked by the line of dense trees, mostly willow and oak, running along the back and to the right. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
And some beautiful historic buildings.
It had the historic barn, yes. Teichert wasn’t going to mine the property anymore. It was an ideal site for the Conservancy to manage, and the preserve would be a great example of restoration of a mining site.
People who are a little more skeptical call it a poster child for the mining companies.
The boardwalk and viewing platform over the former mining pit, now restored into wetlands. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
True enough, and it has received a lot of funding and attention. But I have to tell you, when we started Restore/Restory, everyone, including me, thought we would focus on the Gravel Wars because it was such a bitter episode here in Yolo County. What became clear to me with basic research was that if we only focused on the Gravel Wars, the story would only be about the conflict and collaboration between industry and environment. I realized that if I really wanted to tell the story of a place, we needed to go way beyond that.
This place, as far back as we know, was the homeland of the Wintun Nation. They would be left out. And how would we tell the story of Spain and Mexico and the fur trappers and European explorers who also were on this land?
What you’re saying now takes me back to something that you said before. You spoke of telling the story of California through telling the story of this site. But you actually didn’t start there.
Right. I didn’t start there. But in any project, when you get into research and development, you learn a lot more. When I looked at the larger story, when I looked at the people who had been on that land, how they used the land, I saw the different views on what that land is for and on the people who’d been there.
And, maybe, whose presence has been erased?
Yes. I wanted to try something that was not really centered on a galvanizing issue but instead on a humanities question. The most compelling story was not about the Gravel Wars; it was what’s the story of this place?
How did you choose a community partner?
For all sorts of reasons, the Cache Creek Conservancy seemed like the most appropriate collaborating partner. I worked with them to form a project advisory group that would be representative of the different stakeholders on the creek, people who have different views of the creek and track back to different histories. We had native California leaders, miners, educators. We had policy makers; we had local historians. I wanted to be sure that we had a project that was tapped into academic expertise but grounded in community experience while being aesthetically compelling. So the Advisory Group, who had specific knowledge and experience with the creek, generated and prioritized a list of themes that we might want to explore and named a range of people to speak to those topics.
And while that was happening, you put out a call to UC Davis faculty?
Yes. We had funding, which meant that we could involve university faculty in a way that advanced the project, filling a need of ours and meeting some need the faculty had—for conducting community-based research, for example, or teaching courses connected to a live project. We also funded community historians and culture keepers to work alongside the faculty.
And in addition, you became the instructor of a UC Davis Technocultural Studies class.
I did. In other projects, my role has been teaching community members to make their own media. In this project, the university students made the stories and I worked with them on the fundamentals of community-based media making.
And they made stories not about themselves, but about other people.
So you’ve got an Advisory Group identifying storytellers and, and meanwhile, you’ve set up this class. Then these two things converge: the students in the class attend community storytelling days and record the stories. Give me an idea of what went on.
We had a series of five story days, all held at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve. Students worked in teams, rotating positions. They did a very quick interview: 20–30 minutes usually, and took photos. We staggered the interviews, scheduling storytellers every 45 minutes. Sometimes we had fifteen people recorded in something like four hours.
Janaki Jagannath interviews Claudette Cervinka during one of the five storytelling days. Photograph by Alex Yang.
Let’s get back to all these collaborations. You’ve got your community collaborator, which is the Conservancy. And you’ve got the advisory group coming up with names of the storytellers, and students are being equipped to record the stories. And then you’ve got writing students who have their role.
The broad brushstroke way to say it is that from all the range of people involved, we collectively generated a story map of community memories, audio pieces with photos, and written profiles of the storytellers. We created an audio tour, a kind of multi-poly-vocal history of the Preserve given through five very different views of that land. And I created a series of digital murals—a combination of archival images and contemporary landscape photos that depict the different habitats on the Preserve—with audio stories embedded in them.
The story map created for the Restore/Restory project. Online, a viewer can click the red buttons to link to storyteller photos, audio clips and profiles. Photo courtesy of jesikah maria ross.
One of the digital murals celebrating the peoples and habitats of the Cache Creek area. From left to right: Former slave Basil Campbell, a Wintun elder, original land-grant recipient William Gordon, and local historian Joann Leach Larkey. Photo courtesy of jesikah maria ross.
What happened after everything was gathered, edited, and live, in media terms?
It was run through various people to be authorized, approved, revised. And authorized for sharing, which is a really important piece.
The project debut and story showcase event was held at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve on a Saturday afternoon in late October 2012. It was designed so that there was a series of different activities through which people would come together and engage with the project stories and each other on the site. One activity was a series of nature and culture walks, where I paired together a humanist and a scientist who have some kind of shared background or shared interest but come at it from very different points of view. Another was the debut of the audio tour, guided by a graduate student who worked on the project. There was a story circle in the amphitheater. There were the basket weavers and seating around them. And finally, in the barn, there was a media exhibit, with two of the Technocultural Studies students acting as docents.
Within the historic barn, UC Davis students Janicki Jagannath and Tim Kerbavaz present project images and audio stories. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
Also, through all of this, there was music.
Yes, and I picked a band that could play different musical styles so that different people would resonate, be inspired, be interested. So if you were Latino and you came, you might hear something and think, “Oh wow! That’s mine!” Or you were Hawaiian, or you know, liked bluegrass. They played a huge repertoire.
Okay, so there were all these events going on—
—at the same time—
—up to a certain point, and then the multiple stuff stops, and then there’s the showcase event.
Right. Everything stops.
And then everybody’s invited to come and sit at the tables, where there’s food.
And then I kicked off a series of six speakers, who gave brief presentations. Each selected a story that they wanted to share and then talked a little bit about why they picked that story. After the speakers finished, table guides I had organized used a series of very loose prompts to help people respond to the stories, and through that, make meaning of the experience together.
The ultimate goal of the whole day was this: when people have the opportunity to engage with each other and stories and place, they have the opportunity to forge stronger connections across people and place and with place. That will actually manifest in social benefits that we can talk about.
Everyone’s attention was drawn to one thing that they were doing together. All of that stuff about activities is what happened. But then there’s what happened. The net experience was far greater than the sum of its parts.
Right. One community development concept that I love is “spillover effect”: There are many things you can plan; but so much more will happen that is unplanned. “Spillover” conjures up for me a big beautiful vessel that is so abundant and full of water that it spills over. That’s what I was aiming for. I can map out and produce and plan and curate a really kick-ass program and have some real clear ideas of the kinds of experiences and outcomes that will happen, but a ton of things will happen due to the constellation of different variables that come together in different moments—like who’s sitting at a table or what somebody says. Those will spark and galvanize and ignite other impacts.
Sometimes those are the ones I hoped for; sometimes they’re not. There’s a certain level of outcome you’re striving for and then there’s a level you hope for. You know something will happen on top of that.
But you don’t know what it’s going to be.
Yes. You just hope it’s good.
It was! Let’s go on to invisible things being made visible. We touched on this when you talked about how this one spot became the story of California, a California involving a lot of people whose experiences generally don’t register.
Right. They become legible at a certain moment. All sorts of things became legible, or registered, at the event. The biggest one, I think, for a lot of people was that we were sitting on the homeland of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. We all know that all of California was Native California. But there was a moment, in the way that stories were framed and presented and by whom and discussed, that it became very clear that we were actually sitting and having this amazing party on their traditional homeland.
Yes. And some of the Wintun were there. We were all there. We were all there in relationship. Maybe there was some tension around it, but we were, by being in the same place, in that place—
—having a shared experience. That was key.
And, at the same time, while that registered, Joe Farnham’s wonderful old voice, his story, comes on. He’s talking about his granddad and clearly his heart is also in this place.
In a nutshell, what got made visible was that there are different histories of this place, and that for a lot of us, hearing those different histories will call into question what we know and what we don’t know, and why.
Story showcase presenters Beth Rose Middleton, UC Davis Assistant Professor of Native American Studies. Fernando Moreno, Community Media Activist. Isao Fujimoto, Senior Lecturer Emeritus, UC Davis Community & Regional Development. Photos courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
In the foreground, after hearing presenters play audio stories and share their reactions, groups around tables share their responses with each other. Michael Barbour, UCD Professor of Plant Science, facilitates conversation with Putah Creek Council member Valerie Whitworth, Capital Public Radio journalist Catherine Stifter and others. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
In the audiotape, a person is responding to the question, “What does this place mean to you?” And then you’ve got someone else who’s standing before a crowd of 100–200 people who are sitting around picnic tables with food, saying, “This story is meaningful to me for this reason.” And every one of us sitting at the tables is listening. One way or another, each of us was then put in relationship to the place and to each other. Some of that relationship was conflicted, but because we were all sitting there and because of this listening and because of the structure that you gave to the whole program, there was an ‘us’ created. The “what does this mean to me” was doubled and then geometrically increased so that we were all sitting there in this kind of reverberation of listening about what this place means to us. Even though the answers were really different—it’s our homeland, it’s our grandfather’s property, it’s where I come for school, it’s where I learned from jesikah how to do audio recording—right in the middle of all that, it turned into “it’s meaningful to us.”
You nailed it. On the other hand, I also remember everyone listing to former Conservancy Director Ann Brice talking about what it was like both to be an environmentalist and to be called names for being willing to collaborate with the County and the mining companies. We are listening to her even while the Conservancy representatives were not at the tables, were standing around the periphery. How they were standing and how they all wore the same color made very clear their structure and their response.
Right. That also became visible. And at the same time, what became visible to them was everybody else, also in relationship to “their” place.
A fundamental problem in the project was that they did not, in fact, have ownership.
Well, they had ownership of the Preserve. The mining companies’ fees-per-ton support the Preserve, and the Conservancy oversees the administration of it.
Right. Maybe I should say they had ownership of a particular type of outcome.
And it was a very limited piece. They were only focused on the audio tour, and they imagined the audio tour to be pretty promotional and Cache Creek Conservancy-oriented. So there was a lot of tension because the tour wasn’t like that. Had they owned the project, in the wider sense of having multiple outcomes benefiting the different groups involved, they would have realized there was so much more to it than the audio tour.
I said something earlier about this project offering an alternative to resource-extraction-style public history through intentional community collaboration. But, you know, you never get what you expect. What we ended up with, to some extent, was a demonstration of what happens when you pick a collaborating organization that isn’t fully representative of all the communities involved in that place. It’s also a good example of a collaboration going astray when you are using terms that you don’t have a shared meaning for until you’re very far along—for example, “outreach and education.” The Conservancy articulated a need for an audio tour that would serve their outreach and education goal. The Conservancy meant by the term whatever would enhance their K-6 field trip program. But I took the term to mean “outreach” and “education” in the widest possible sense: from K-12, to college students, to continuing learning, to migrant worker education, to nature buffs, to families.
Yes, and what they conceive of as ownership isn’t what you mean by ownership. For tribal people, this place is homeland. For farming people, this place is where their great-grandfather put down roots and where their family’s been. Those are different kinds of ownership.
Certainly the farming families who have deeds on the land would say that they own the land. The people for whom it is homeland may not own it in the same kind of legal document trail kind of way, but the reference that anybody at the basket weaving table made to where they gathered or where they resided was always in terms of “I gather this in my homeland,” or “I don’t live in my homeland, but I live in this other place.” That whole way of talking about place came right up against all the other kinds of ways of talking about place.
I love how you just put that together. In these kinds of collaborations, you have these collision points. But out of those not-always-feel-good moments, each participant grows. I ended up with a much better understanding of so many things I would not have thought of, and I really feel that the Conservancy, too, saw possibilities they hadn’t thought of before: how many kinds of people would come to the site, a deeper understanding of the power of media. One of the things about a messy, tension-filled project is that if people can stay in it together, they both learn and grow.
When I think about the experience I try to create and facilitate, that I can plan for and hope that there’s spillover from, it is that all the participants have a stronger and deeper connection to each other, whoever those others are, and to this place.
We have that because…?
We have that because of three things. An environment’s been created which has helped us become open and comfortable. We’ve had an opportunity to engage in something that we have, in some way, chosen. We chose to do an activity. We chose to ask a question. And then, third, you’re sharing that experience with a range of people who are probably different than you and you are hearing things that you may not have heard before.
And may not even agree with.
Yes. So, being comfortable, open, trusting, willing to engage, being given an opportunity to decide what you want to do within that. And then sharing that experience with people different from you in a way that is engaging and fun allows you to make meaning of it with other people.
And it’s all very intentionally focused on just the 130 acres of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve. So the “what does this place mean to you?” gets changed to “what does this place mean to us?”
And then what the word “place” in that statement means also changes. It’s no longer what does this place, this 130 acres, mean to you? It means, what does this county that you live in mean to you? Or what does California mean to you?
If I were in a classroom and writing on the board, I would have written, “What does this place mean to you?” and I would have to start crossing out terms. I’ve crossed out “you” and put in “us” because we’ve realized that everyone becomes engaged in the question of “What does this place mean to us?” And then you have to cross out “place” because—
—you zoomed out.
Yes. You need multimedia because suddenly each term is a whole bunch of interchangeable things.
I think that’s why I end up using “shared” in front of a lot of words: “shared vision,” “shared experience,” “shared geography,” “shared humanity,” because people aren’t going to care for places or other people unless they have some kind of connection with them, unless they have some kind of regard. And it’s hard to develop a connection and regard unless you have some physical contact.
My goal was to create a story of “us” that would have social benefits in Yolo County. We would have a stronger sense of a collective identity. We would have a better sense of what our watershed is, how it works, and what the challenges and tensions are in a natural environment. That would be a very healthy, functioning, democratic, inclusive, and just community.
jesikah maria ross would like to acknowledge the funders who took a bit of a risk in providing monies to a project and program that was a bit outside of the box: the Quitalpás Foundation, the UC Institute for Research in the Arts, and the UC Humanities Research Institute.
Doug Rickard is a photographer from Sacramento, California, whose ambitious project “A New American Picture” incorporates images of contemporary American Life from across the United States. Rickard, however, spent thousands of travel hours logged for this project sitting in a darkened studio and virtually driving the byways of Google Street View (GSW). He has moved through and captured images from desolate areas reeling from the effects of racial inequality, the grim effects of poverty, and the failures in social history. The images both indict the barbarity of power and evoke the strange beauty of a shattered environment.
Spring Warren: An introduction to your work reads that you “present a startling photographic portrait of the socially disenfranchised, providing deeply affecting evidence of the American dream inverted.” Was this your aim when you began?
Doug Rickard: I am the son of an evangelical preacher that had a church in largely white, affluent Los Gatos in the eighties that had grown over twenty-five years from 100 or so members to over 6,000. My father was very conservative, and his view was our Christian nation had been specifically blessed by God to lead the world. When I went to school at UC San Diego and studied slavery, the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow-era laws and customs, I saw the nation in a light quite different than I had seen it growing up. This collision of world views informed where I would take “A New American Picture.”
The project started with a focus on African American communities to see what they looked like on the heels of our history. I wanted to see what slavery and Jim Crow did to development in the here and now. I used “Martin Luther King Jr.” as a search criteria to find areas of the city from which to start, [that is] the streets named MLK Blvd. or Road or Ave. These areas were typically the most devastated. This didn’t surprise me, given our history, but still, it was incredibly sad that a beacon of hope for our nation now served as a symbol for blight.
Following that, I became interested in the broken areas as a whole. From the beginning, I used the description of the American Dream inverted. My working title was actually “Empire,” and I saw a segment of our nation as sort of the pawns on the chessboard of this empire. For those without economic or educational power, the American Dream is often a myth.
Warren: The places in the images are much emptier than one would expect to see. Further, though the locations span the country, each place strongly resembles the other. Concrete, asphalt, grass, and weeds growing through cracks in the sidewalk and not growing much elsewhere, old cars, graffiti, peeling paint, boarded windows, rust, and disrepair seem to happen in the same way no matter where. In light of this, what were the ways you saw different areas of the country distinguish themselves?
Rickard: To be fair, I wanted to load the work with a feeling of alienation, and I sought pictures out that reflected this. But at the same time, these places—Detroit, Fresno, Camden, Buffalo, Gary, South Dallas, Baltimore, Memphis, etc.—are in fact this way. And in the smaller cities—Wasco, California; Helena, Arkansas; Port Arthur, Texas—there are endless blocks of shuttered businesses and homes. Burned carcasses of architecture and people wandering around trying to survive and exist. And the color lines are still severe and based on economic conditions.
I agree there are very common physical [visual] elements at play here that are linked perhaps to poverty. I would see the same things in the areas of our nation that are devastated . . . what you just listed and also broken-down cars with people peering under the hood, liquor stores and churches, emptiness whether in the streets, the land, or the business buildings and homes. But beyond these common themes I was looking for representation of our nation’s diversity as well. I wanted to use both color and geographical markers, weather and architecture to build out a feeling of “America”—so you see urban areas that are entirely cement but also the rural and entirely overgrown, the brownstones and tall buildings, and the palm trees and ranch-style homes too, all guided by my own perceptions of the places. Even though I have never been in those places, I have a “feeling” of Detroit and of Dallas and Miami which comes from the media and the stories we hear.
Warren: There is a certain 1970s-esque palette to this work and so many old cars and buildings in the landscapes that, but for knowing that the street view project was begun in 2007, it would be difficult to pinpoint the time in which these pictures were taken. It is interesting that technology that shouts NEW creates a visual confusion as to time. Was this something you tried to heighten?
Rickard: Absolutely. I was drawn to the less clear imagery, the “lower res” if you will. What this means in literal terms is that I only took pictures where the images were taken by Google’s early cameras. Luckily, this was most of the country at the time, and certainly the economically broken areas. I suppose that this is interesting in itself as the project is dealing with technology and yet I limited the views that I would show to the most broken-down and “painterly” of visual images. Much of this is really due to how I associate beauty. I favored the broken images as I felt that they were beautiful and contained a certain poetry. Finally, these broken-down images helped me load the work with the type of emotional feeling that I wanted to impart. I was looking for pictures to reinforce notions of the entropy that you mention, along with isolation, abandonment, neglect, alienation. So in a sense, this work is very much controlled by me and loaded by me. It contains some elements of a document but also really functions as art.
Warren: Speaking of art, there’s been a lot of uproar about the fact that you didn’t physically take the images with your own camera, though found object art has been accepted since Duchamp took it on. The problem seems these are photographs not of your making—but screen captures. How do you answer when people accuse you of not being author of your art?
Rickard: Yes, as you mention, the history of art from Duchamp to Richard Prince and others is filled with the reuse and recontextualization of material, be it physical objects or images. In this case, the ability to affect the work itself for me was particularly pronounced. In essence, GSV is a frozen work that you navigate within, that you move within, and travel through. You have a massive amount of influence over what you ultimately choose to do within this world. This includes the composing of the pictures—you have 360-degree movement, also up and down, also the geometry skews with your movement, which you can control to affect “feeling”—the editing of what you look for and choose to show, and finally how the whole of these pictures functions itself. In my case, I was able to use these elements to embed many layers of meaning. These elements were so pronounced as to connect me strongly to photography as a history and a whole. I wanted to do something here that paralleled Robert Frank, Walker Evans, and others who have turned their eye on the American experience. The movement and scale of reach within this platform allowed for this to occur. You have outlined some of the results in your own questions, and there are more that exist for each individual viewer and what they bring to the equation when viewing.
Warren: How much does the idea of your work add to the perception of it? I guess I’m asking if you feel a single image could stand without the tapestry of the entire project, and more importantly, without any explanation of the concept that “A New American Picture” is embedded in?
Rickard: The concept here was, of course, very important, but I felt that the actual pictures had to stand as individuals. I think that concept alone is typically thin—though there are times in art’s history, of course, where concept is strong enough to stand alone; and I want idea to be married to strength of the images—that was much of the point.
Warren: I love the term “screen capture.” It conveys the sense of the hunt, of tracking down these images on the Web. But doing so seems more of a treasure hunt, of searching out inert objects, than it is akin to tracking live images that one shoots with a camera. Talk to me about the different feel of the two processes and where some of the same skills intersect in these two ways of taking images.
Rickard: This is an interesting area of intersection. With GSV, both elements form a crossroads of sorts, as GSV has a great deal of movement that one can impart on to a frozen world. What I mean is, with Google taking nine images every ten meters and stitching them together, one is left with the ability to compose a scene. Not freely as one does with a camera out in the world, or with the naked eye, but somewhere in between. I needed this movement to create this body of work. It allowed me to get the same feeling that I would get out in the world doing photography on the street. And yet, something else was contained that was fascinating to me . . . the ability to encounter subjects that were unaware or semi-aware of the camera itself. That left certain feelings embedded into the work that would not be there if done by traditional means.
I am certainly also very interested in the use of entirely static images. The Internet is expanding so quickly. I have heard that 30 billion pictures will be taken next year alone with a good portion of those ending up on the Internet. This dynamic, the ability to take unlimited pictures from millions and millions of devices, is changing the way that we see the world. Photography and art will undoubtedly be affected and in my view, it is extraordinary and fascinating. This is an area that we could talk about for hours, this topic alone.
Warren: Yes, the Digital Age seems to be in a position of remolding not only our ideas of art, but privacy, time, and even reality. We are caught in the process not only in GVS but by surveillance cameras, and we no longer own or control our own image. Do you feel a little itchy recognizing how much we are at the mercy of other people’s electronic and possibly voyeuristic gaze? Are you concerned with the way your art may conflict with personal privacy?
Rickard: In the era of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, we trade the power that is contained in these tools for our own control of our privacy. I don’t think that you can have both. We are in an era where privacy will continue to erode and all of us will live a partially “public” life whether we want to or not. The technologists would say, “If you don’t like it, simply unplug and don’t use those products.” But we mostly will continue to use these products. I think that there will be pros and cons to this in the future. We just don’t yet know the severity of it.
Art tends to stem perhaps from all of the implications in any given era and the Internet is a decidedly strong implication. Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” plays a part in what I did. It doesn’t translate necessarily into a certain thing happening in that moment—a man falling down, a house burning—in fact, I avoided anything that was “dramatic” in terms of the scene. Instead, the decisive moment translates into how things are visually and aesthetically reading in that moment. Where the sunlight is coming from, where the subject’s gaze is directed, where the subject is in the frame versus the building outline, etc. What that really translates into then is a certain beauty or perhaps a transcendent moment.
As to voyeurism, I think that photography itself and those who are drawn to it have a particular curiosity about how things look, how things play out and operate around them. I am always in the moment visually, looking and absorbing and remembering. The way I take in faces and things and databank them I also do with images from the Web, hoarding and archiving and retaining their elements in my mind. I probably have 100,000 images plus from the Web, organized by topic and category.
Warren: You do have a couple of amazing photography sites. “These Americans” launched in March 2012 has home-shot Polaroids of Richard Pryor, crime scenes photos, road trips, and sex images, to name only a few categories. The other, “American Suburb X,” you call a “fiercely edited look at photography’s massively relevant past, dramatically shifting present and rapidly unfolding future.” Tell me about “fiercely edited” and about the different muscles it takes to be a collector, an artist, and an editor, and how these things work together.
Rickard: Editing is crucial. Within photography this is certainly the case, but it goes beyond that and into design, into details, into content itself, into how things play against each other. Editing is ultimately about making decisions, and those decisions directly determine the strength of anything that you do as an artist or otherwise.
These things should work together and in fact, in this era, they may end up as one and the same. Ultimately [the Internet] may change the way that museums and art silos function. The lines are being blurred. At the forefront of this blurring is an ability to edit. I think that it may end up as the crucial cog in an artist’s wheel.
“These Americans” is really an extension of my head. I collect and archive images both physical and digital on a scale that is scary in size. My conflicting views of our nation, its past, its present, its horrors, and its heroics, all play out in my mind, and visually, you can see evidence of my experience as an evangelist’s son, the realization of our nation’s darkest deeds which has given me direction. I don’t see myself doing any body of work that does not include some element of America as its foundation.
Warren: Californians seem to spend a great deal of time in their vehicles. Have you done a great deal of actual traveling as well as your impressive amount of virtual traveling?
Rickard: It’s true, our state seems entirely designed for automobiles and in most cases one can hardly even get a candy bar without driving to it. But I haven’t traveled much. I do plan to. I had only been to the East Coast once as a child and to the Northwest a few times. Now my wife and I have fourteen- and nine-year-old boys and a new baby girl, age seven months. They are always around when I’m working, lots of coffee and music; it’s really perfect, but not for travel. So part of this body of work was driven by necessity. I had no ability to go out and spend months on the road, but I was determined to do something on a broader America. That led me to GSV. Great things can come out of restraints. The limitations force you to innovate or find a new way of doing something.
This work kept me in a dark room behind a computer for a thousand hours or more, over three years making 10,000-plus pictures for this body of work—of which ultimately around eighty stood; California pictures number at twelve. This speaks loudly to the power this project held over me. I acclimated myself to this method of “driving.” I could go from the inner city of Camden, New Jersey, to the borderlands of southern New Mexico in the same evening. This constant ability to explore new areas was for me a thrill and pull. Of course, the real world is something on another level, but there were entirely powerful elements at work here.
Warren: Where will GVS take us from here? What other uses might be made of it?
Rickard: I am not sure. We’ll have to wait and see. I don’t see myself continuing to work with it for bodies of work beyond “A New American Picture.”
Warren: With fuel costs rising and reserves dwindling, the future does not bode well for the future average citizen who would like to travel. Artists have long brought far-off places within sight of those who couldn’t get there. What do you think it means when GSV, an automated image-maker, plays such a part in this?
Rickard: It is interesting, the point you make. I think that you would look beyond GSV to frame this. Technology itself is replacing travel in many cases. We are moving to a world that allows communication without travel on an unprecedented scale. This is only going to increase. So, while economic components may play a substantial role in the volume of travel, it is really the technological elements that are rapidly shifting our world. Certainly, only a certain percentage of the world touch technology, but almost all seem to be impacted. I suppose we can just call this impact by the heavily used word “globalization.”
Warren: Does it create a more true vision of the world, or less so?
Rickard: This is hard to answer. I think perhaps it does both things simultaneously, makes clearer and also diffuses or obscures. People now have access to information on a mind-boggling scale and literally at their fingertips at any moment. This is in the form of data, audio, and also visual information—pictures and video, if you will. At the same time, people may be experiencing “real life” less and relying on the representation of life on the screen at home and in their hands as a substitute for real life. Perhaps then we are on a road to “know” more but experience less. What that does for our vision of the world is perhaps yet to be determined.